When I first got involved with online communities (mumblemumble years ago now), they were largely digitized gatherings of misfit humans around common interests or topics.

Suffice it to say that the world of Community has changed drastically since then, and as a result, the role of the people that steward and tend to those communities has changed drastically too.

Now we have this interesting dynamic, especially between brands/businesses and their various communities. It’s not exactly personal. It’s not strictly “professional”. We’re all trying to hone this elusive “perfessional” balance that maintains the respect of customer/prospect/influencer-to-business relationship but adds a dose of personal attention, communication and voice that ensures each person as an individual feels seen and heard.

It’s not easy.

But even as some things change, many things stay the same, and there are few things your community will undoubtedly need as you gear up for building, managing, and stewarding those relationships in 2016, whatever it looks like.

1. Quit putting out crappy, navel-gazing content.

I’m pretty convinced that this is going to be the year of some spectacular “content” failures. It always happens when the critical mass moves to a new tactic like Content Marketing.

You can’t swing a dead cat on the internet now without hitting some piece of clever Content, most of which is only clever in the eyes of the creator.

Never forget the singular golden rule of creating business- or brand-driven content: it had better be useful, educational, or entertaining. Bonus if it’s more than one at once, but remember that the determination for succeeding at those things is not made by you, the content creator.

It’s made by the people who will consume it. If they can’t use it, learn from it, or enjoy it, it doesn’t matter a fig how well it “aligns” with your brand messaging, voice, or marketing goals.

If it doesn’t work for your community, it doesn’t work. Period. No matter how many clicks it gets.

Do yourself the favor of being ruthless about critically evaluating your content plans for the year, and the success metrics you’ve selected. Vet them outside your own marketing team (sales and account teams have pretty good BS meters for stuff like this, as do your own advocates and fans. Let them look before you invest in an idea).

There’s so much detritus out there that the really good stuff will stand out, even if you have to slow down and produce a few really valuable pieces each quarter instead of a dozen mediocre ones each month.

2. Don’t make your community turn to social to be heard.

Every day I see someone on Twitter or Facebook say that they’ll have to “resort” to social because they can’t get a response from traditional customer service and support channels with the companies they need to talk to.

Please. Don’t be this company.

It’s exceedingly hard to integrate your social customer care with your traditional customer care, especially if the latter is outsourced in any way and you have your social channels manned by an entirely separate team.

Start anyway. Try. Maybe begin by including your community team on calls with your customer care team. Look at processes and find the overlaps and the cavernous gaps that exist between how issues are resolved by online teams and how they’re resolved by your call center.

The reason people turn to social is that they know three things: 1) Most people by now are at least paying attention to their branded social channels; 2) They’re going to respond quickly because it’s public; 3) The community will amplify anything negative, including a lack of response, so they’re invested in getting it resolved and offline as quickly as possible.

Today’s reality is that your phone, email, web and social are all parts of the entire customer care engine. It’s past time to treat them that way.

3. Use a voice that you’d actually want to speak to/with.

Marketing people love “messaging”.

We do. And there’s some truth to the fact that well-crafted messaging can indeed help clarify for people what you do, who you are, and how to think about your brand or company.

What it should never do is insult the intelligence of your audience, attempt to obfuscate truth or reality with a bunch of marketing-speak, or dodge accountability with cleverly-crafted prose and “statements”.

You can deliver a sincere apology and do so professionally. You can make cool announcements about things you’re excited about…and sound genuinely excited about it without beating a bunch of buzzwords into the ground. You can do this.

Make it a priority this year to train your community and comms teams to use good judgement, respect some professional guidelines, but use an approachable tone that also allows some personalization and personality to come through for the individuals that are delivering the message.

This is a function of education as well as hiring well for the people in these roles. If you have to work really hard to teach people how to do this, you probably have the wrong person. It’s part science, part art, and part really good instincts.

This is really, really important. And it can make the difference between community engagements that are sincere, genuine and build good will and the ones that people use as tomorrow’s “how NOT to do things” case study.

4. Stop phoning it in.

If you’re making the investment to create content, to build social audiences/followings, to amplify content with paid media and advertising, you owe it to yourself to invest in cultivating the community once you build it, too.

Community managers aren’t just geeks on forums anymore. They should be strategic, professional members of your communications team that represent the voice of the customer, serve as ambassadors for your brand online and off, and can be trusted to manage customer interactions, enthusiastically participate in conversations, contribute smart content, and participate with the rest of your team in improving your strategies all the time based on what they learn.

These are super important “bridge” roles today that help reach across the digital divide between your customers and your company. They can help educate your internal teams that aren’t as informed or comfortable with the online world. They can be tastemakers and trendsetters if they have a finger on the pulse of what’s happening Out There. They can help you improve legacy processes and bring them into the digital age by identifying sticking points between community and customer experience and the business processes that exist today.

This is the year to stop relying solely on a team of interns or fresh graduates with precious little customer-facing experience and treat your community team like a strategic function of your communications organization.

Because it really and truly is.

Community isn’t just online, and it’s not just a fluffy idea anymore.

It’s a very concrete one that harbors very real impact for your company.

You have customers. Prospective customers. Advocates and fans. Influential people that may or may not be in any of the former groups. Industry pundits and analysts. Journalists and media. Investors or shareholders. Board members. Internal stakeholders. Probably more.

Communities and audiences and the people that make your business work are all sorts of intermingled, they’re online and offline (like most humans are these days), they have a vested interest in some aspect of your work.

We’ll all do ourselves a disservice if we keep equating “community” with “people who leave comments on the internet”.

The digital age has given us new media, and with it, new mandates to elevate our ideas about the people that impact our brand, our business, and our work. You can do this.

Let’s make this the year that we do our communities justice.